The phone rings in a dark room in Corvallis, where Colton Bond sits illuminated by a lone lamp and headset around his neck. On the line is a distressed caller with snakes in her attic and a box of mothballs in her hand. She’s called Bond for advice on how to deploy mothballs against the snakes.
Mothballs are not intended to kill snakes—nor squirrels, bats, or birds—Bond gently informs her. Because mothballs change from solid to gas in closed spaces, they can be dangerous to people breathing in the fumes.
The caller is not convinced. How dangerous is dangerous? she presses. With a calm, reassuring tone, Bond digs in: When in doubt, follow the pesticide label as closely as possible, he stresses. It is considered a legal document, after all.
“Often our callers are having their worst possible day,” said Bond, a pesticide specialist for the National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC), a national hotline housed on Oregon State University’s campus. “We connect with them one on one, bring their anxiety down a notch, and talk about the range of non-chemical choices for dealing with pests.”
Pests come in all shapes and sizes, from crawlspace snakes to malaria-carrying mosquitos. Pests can invade your home, destroy your crops, make you sick, or damage the economy. Bond and his NPIC teammates are on the front lines helping the public manage these pests safely. They answer thousands of calls in several languages, are visited by millions online, and offer pest information with a swipe of a smartphone. National Pesticide Information Center is one part of a global effort led by OSU to replace the use of poisonous chemicals with effective but less toxic alternatives for fighting these pests.
The pest-fighting arsenal is now well stocked with alternatives to toxic chemicals, such as species-specific viruses, insect pheromones that disrupt mating, and natural predators that hunt pests down—like ladybugs that feed on aphids. This counterpunch to pests is known as integrated pest management, commonly called IPM, and it starts with the least toxic options before moving on to other methods.
“These days there’s more in the toolkit for fighting pests than just chemicals,” said Rick Hilton, an OSU researcher in southern Oregon. “We are always looking at other options.” Pest management is not only what happens in fields and orchards. It plays a role in everyday life, from what’s on your plate to what’s in your lungs.
Back on the phone, Bond tells the accidental snake landlady that there are no registered pesticides that will remove snakes from her attic. He gives her contacts for a local specialist who can remove the serpents and plug the holes where they slithered in.
“All pests need food, shelter, and water, so if we remove those things, we can avoid unnecessary pesticide treatments,” said Dave Stone, the director of the NPIC.
Pest management has not always been so progressive. Stone points to the walls of the call center, where a rusty antique pesticide hose collects dust in a museum-like display. A World War II-era sign tacked to a bulletin board proclaims, “Mexican Bug Spray Kills ’Em Dead!” in ominous red lettering.
Some of these relics of the pesticide past still linger in use around the world, in an incautious reliance on toxic chemicals for agriculture.
Paul Jepson has seen this with his own eyes, in both the most and the least developed systems. He has studied how pesticides are used in Europe, North America, and Africa, and he and his team have uncovered extensive risks to human health and natural resources throughout the world.
“Just because a chemical is available and labeled does not mean it will be safe or effective,” said Jepson, head of OSU’s Integrated Plant Protection Center (IPPC). “Pesticides should only be used when necessary. But when they’re not clearly understood, more chemicals are applied than needed—and often in dangerous ways.”
Not only do villagers in West Africa lack access to education and information regarding pesticides, Jepson said, they also lack basics, like protective clothing. Chemicals run off into the water they drink and use for bathing and washing dishes. These waters then flow downstream, compromising fragile ecosystems along the way. Pesticides rarely just kill pests; beneficial bugs—those that hunt pests—often also succumb to toxic exposure, and severe pest outbreaks commonly occur following pesticide use.
Meanwhile, a lack of effective regulation in West Africa allows dangerous chemicals to persist in the marketplace. Villagers depend on these chemicals to raise the crops that feed their families, and they often have no other way to fight pests that could put their next meal in jeopardy.West African farmers’ use of pesticides is increasing, but in some cases, crop yields have actually fallen, because pest problems have become more severe in heavily treated crops.
This worries Jepson. By 2050, the planet will be unable to meet its food needs through current agricultural practices, according to the Kavli Declaration—a pact signed by some of the top scientists and agronomists in the world. Jepson and other OSU researchers are among its signatories and most vocal supporters.
It is no less than a mission statement for the future of food, calling for a “drastic transformation of the global agricultural system.” One of the most important aspects of its implementation is to teach the practice of IPM around the globe.
“We must radically change the way we protect against pests,” he said. For the past half-century, OSU scientists have developed pest management in the Pacific Northwest to help protect farmers, their crops, and the environment. Now, they’re introducing these tactics to Africa, in partnership with local experts.
“The African farmers are faced with the choice of raising crops with chemicals or going hungry. With shocking levels of pesticide use, and the lack of effective regulations or extension services, the logical answer is behavior change through participatory education,” said Mary Halbleib, assistant director of the IPPC.
OSU scientists are now teaching West African farmers to use pesticides that pose lower risks, as well as to adopt new strategies that don’t involve chemicals to battle pests. Growers have been eager to learn and adopt changes, large and small, and have been participants in the process throughout—even helping to design the education program. Local culture and customs help researchers spread what they’re teaching, as farmers have been eager to talk and spread new lessons among friends and neighbors.
Meanwhile, Jepson and his team are working with international agencies, regional organizations, and national authorities to reduce access to the most hazardous pesticides. The effort helps villagers understand their choices as both buyers and sellers—an often-delicate task that’s as much about interpersonal relations as it is about hard science.
“Farmers on opposite sides of the planet often have the same needs and goals,” said Jepson. “Lessons we’ve learned working with farmers in West Africa can now help growers in Oregon and vice versa.”
Jepson is Oregon’s unofficial IPM ambassador to the world, an impression that’s reinforced by his dapper British accent. Growing up in the sooty setting of industrial Manchester, Jepson’s world was shaped by wastage piles, slag tips, and air stinging with the whiff of furnaces and foundries. As an 11-year-old wandering past the factories, he stumbled onto an open field behind a coal miner’s cottage. There he laid eyes on a landscape of barley swaying in the wind.
“Those were the first crops I ever saw, and I thought they were magical. It shaped my view of agriculture as something incredible and mysterious,” said Jepson. “Agriculture still has a magnetic pull for me; it’s how we feed the world. But our future is laden with problems. A key part of the solution is how we manage pests.”
That’s what has Rick Hilton on his hands and knees in a vineyard in southern Oregon on a hot summer day. He’s yanking loose bark from grapevines with a hand lens dangling from his neck.
“It can be painstaking,” Hilton said, as he lifts his cap to wipe sweat from his brow. As he rips back bark, tiny mealybug egg sacs become visible, a sure sign that the next wave of the pest could be imminent.
“Four years ago the mealybug showed up, and we nearly lost most of our crop,” said Dick Ellis, owner of these grapevines and the Pebblestone Cellars in Phoenix, Oregon. “We try to stem the infestation every year using smart pest management.”
With the help of the local OSU experiment station (the Southern Oregon Research & Extension Center in Central Point), Ellis set up pheromone traps that snagged male mealybugs in search of a mate. Based on what he finds in the traps, he spot-sprays pesticides only when and where it’s needed—saving money and reducing harm to beneficial insects that attack and eat other pests.
The IPPC built free online tools to help growers such as Ellis determine the need for and the precise timing of sprays. By linking 16,000 weather stations across the country to the biological schedule of over 100 pests and plant diseases, farmers can use the software to target the best time for pesticides.
“We don’t tell growers when or what to spray—we help them make better decisions and fewer mistakes,” said Len Coop, an IPPC researcher who wrote the software, known as pest and disease models, hosted at USPEST.org.
Pinpointing where to use pesticides is not the only pest strategy in Ellis’s vineyard. To protect against rodents, he’s placed nest boxes to attract owls to the vineyard. Grasses growing between rows of grapevines provide habitat for beneficial wasps, ladybugs, and other insects that keep pests in check.
After the mealybug hunt, Ellis slips off his sweat-ringed cap and sips a glass of his award-winning Syrah in his wood-paneled tasting room. “Without really good grapes, you can’t have good wine. And you can’t have the right grapes without the right pest management,” he said. “To establish southern Oregon as a world-class wine region, we need to continue the marriage of our industry and pest research.”
Contrary to some perceptions, IPM does not mean all chemicals are sworn off completely. Without pesticides, farmers could lose yield and crop quality could become less predictable. In fact, pesticides have allowed some commodities to meet export standards and offer assurances against disease and contaminants, according to Jepson.
“Because we’ve developed agriculture in such a way that makes crops susceptible to a range of pests, sometimes chemicals are the only solution to strike down a problem,” he said.
When new pests arrive on the scene, it can take scientists years to design an effective IPM solution. For example, when the spotted wing drosophila began wreaking havoc on U.S. fruits in 2009, growers needed an immediate safeguard. The fly was a new invader to North America and there was little known about it. Now, OSU researchers are investigating all aspects of the pest—from its genetic code to its natural predators—to develop a fully integrated approach.
“It’s an eons-old battle between bugs and plants. Insects feed on plants that battle back with resistant traits and then bugs take flight to new territories,” said Peter Shearer, an OSU IPM researcher in Hood River. “The struggle to maintain this balance has shaped our environment in countless ways.”